Pandemic Curbed Kids’ Efforts to Lose Excess Weight

By Amy Norton
Health Day reporter

FRIDAY, November 19, 2021 (HealthDay News) – A new study highlights another consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic: It has likely made it even more difficult for obese children to manage their weight.

The results, according to the researchers, are not surprising. Many adults, faced with disrupted normal lives during the pandemic, have seen changes on the scale.

It is also clear that the children were not spared either. A recent government study found that in the first nine months of the pandemic, American children and adolescents gained weight twice as fast as in the previous two years.

And while COVID restrictions have eased, life has not returned to “normal,” said Bradley Appelhans, the new study’s lead investigator.

“The kids are back to school now, but some activities are still limited,” said Appelhans, associate professor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

More generally, he noted, the question arises as to whether the pandemic has altered families’ daily routines in a way that will continue to make healthy living more difficult.

For the study, Appelhans and his team followed 230 children from low-income urban families who were enrolled in a clinical trial testing an obesity treatment program – before or during the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, Appelhans said, the program included in-person sessions for parents and other caregivers, offering them tactics to help their children eat healthier and exercise.

Once the pandemic struck, these sessions took place online or by phone.

And for the children in the program during that time, any benefits were diminished, according to the study.

Over a year, these children typically saw their body mass index (BMI) increase, a measure of weight for height. This was in contrast to the children in the program before the pandemic: they generally had a decrease in BMI that was maintained over a year.

The researchers suspect that the results reflect the conditions of the pandemic, rather than the ineffective tele-sessions.

“Even though the families were supported, the children were still stuck at home, with nothing but the refrigerator and video games to entertain themselves,” Appelhans said.

The school, he noted, provides children with exercise opportunities and free or discounted meals, as well as a general structure for the day.

This lack of daily structure could be one of the main reasons for children’s weight gain during the pandemic, said Amanda Staiano, a researcher who was not involved in the study.

No one blames families who are stressed and faced with home schooling.

“Obviously, we know families were and are under a lot of stress,” said Staiano, associate professor of pediatric obesity and health-related behaviors at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

But, she added, it takes a “whole family commitment” to help kids get back to a healthier routine.

“It could mean just dating for a walk around the neighborhood,” Staiano said.

Low-income urban families like those in the study have been hit hard by the pandemic in many ways.

And it is city children who have had the hardest time staying physically active under pandemic restrictions, said Nicole Fearnbach, spokesperson for The Obesity Society and also a researcher at Pennington.

Indoor exercise is easier said than done for families with no space or money for special equipment, she noted. And many children lacked safe or accessible outdoor spaces to be active.

Plus, exercise is only part of the story. It is clear, Fearnbach said, that the pandemic has negatively affected the diet, sleep patterns and, most importantly, the mental well-being of many children.

Fearnbach said if parents need help getting their kids back into a healthier routine, they can talk to their pediatrician.

Staiano suggested that parents also find out what their child’s school is doing to provide opportunities for exercise.

Families struggling to establish healthier routines shouldn’t feel “discouraged,” Appelhans said.

“Many families are in difficulty,” he said. “If you’re struggling, you shouldn’t feel like you’ve failed.”

There are reasons to be optimistic. Now that school-aged children are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination, Fearnbach said, parents may be more comfortable involving them in activities.

Staiano also noted that in the study, family participation in the weight management program was just as high during the pandemic as it was before.

“Even during the pandemic,” she said, “families made it a priority”.

The results were recently published online in the journal Obesity.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics provides advice on parenting during the pandemic.

SOURCES: Bradley Appelhans, PhD, associate professor, preventive medicine, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago; Amanda Staiano, PhD, associate professor, pediatric obesity and health behavior, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge; Nicole Fearnbach, PhD, spokesperson, The Obesity Society, Silver Spring, Md., And assistant professor, research, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Baton Rouge; Obesity, November 5, 2021, online

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